Learning environments shape views of STEM

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Teachers have a role in how students view STEM.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning occurs in many places. This includes both formal and informal environments. Formal learning environments are more structured, such as schools and classrooms, that are often connected to specific standards. Learning can also occur informally in settings such as after-school clubs, museums or at home with family.

Informal STEM learning environments can broaden participation in STEM and STEM careers, especially for individuals from marginalized groups. Participation in informal STEM programs, however, is often limited by structural factors, such as lack of transportation. To overcome these barriers many after-school STEM programs are hosted at schools by science education specialists from community organizations.

We recently published work exploring this topic through the St. Jude Cancer Education and Outreach Program in collaboration with the Department for Teaching and Learning at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The research appeared in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. Our study explored how youth experience and make sense of STEM learning across multiple environments.

Expanded vs. narrowed views of STEM

The study focuses on the experiences of youth, informal and formal educators participating in an after-school STEM club hosted at elementary schools. Students participating in the club had either narrowed or expanded views of STEM. Students with narrowed views of STEM, perceived STEM as “hard” and only for “smart people.” Students with expanded views of STEM, on the other hand, perceived STEM as “exploration” and “problem solving.”

Students’ views of STEM were also connected to how they viewed themselves. Students with narrowed views of STEM were more hesitant to say they were a STEM person compared to students with expanded views.  

Students’ views of STEM matched those of their STEM teachers. This suggests that schools and teachers play an important role in shaping students’ views. It was unclear in the study, however, which specific teacher behaviors or school structures shaped students’ thinking about STEM.

How can teachers work to help expand students’ views of STEM?

We thought it might be helpful to provide strategies we use to help expand students’ views of STEM:

  • Provide students with opportunities to use scientific thinking to solve real-world problems. This could be a problem students identify in the classroom, the school or in their communities.
  • Promote a growth mindset. A growth mindset is the belief that our abilities grow and develop through strategic effort and hard work. STEM skills and knowledge develop over time through hard work and dedication.
  • Encourage collaboration. Many STEM problems are complex and cannot be solved by a single individual. They require groups of individuals from different backgrounds with diverse skills who can work together to achieve a common goal.

St. Jude is committed to driving research progress in STEM to meet our mission of discovering cures for catastrophic childhood illnesses. A better understanding of STEM education, which helps identify and remove barriers to entry into scientific fields, is an important cornerstone to develop future generations of scientists and innovators.  

About the author

Kate Ayers, MS, is the manager of the Cancer Education Program within the Comprehensive Cancer Center at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
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